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Life at the Speed of Light:
From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life
J Craig Venter
The completion of the mapping of the human genome was announced in 2003. For geneticists it was Oscar night and they'd scooped up every award. Here, it was claimed, was the blueprint of humanity, and a deluge of medical benefits must surely follow. But the deluge did not come quickly enough to satisfy the short attention span of the fickle lay audience and they turned away to adore the new pouting star on the block - neuroscience.
The problem was complexity. J Craig Venter once said to me that the genome was so complex, no human could have designed it and he wasn't sure natural selection could have done the job either. There was no quick way from the genome to a cure for cancer. But, with this book, he has moved on from all such uncertainties. Life at the Speed of Light is a scientific, not a personal, memoir. It is a bold announcement that genetics is, indeed, on the verge of changing everything.
Venter is the maverick of genetics, as much an entrepreneur as a scientist. As a medic in the Vietnam War, he saw the dead and dying and decided to study medicine, though he actually studied biochemistry. He became convinced of the fundamental importance of the genome project and determined to pursue mapping by his own fast-track methods.
As government-funded institutions slowly geared up to decode the genome, Venter raced ahead with his own system. He forced an acceleration in the project and took joint honours with the state scientists when the task was completed. Always there was mistrust. In Europe he was thought - unfairly, I suspect - to be seizing the code of life for private enterprise.
Venter is racing ahead again. Genetics is about to deliver. In the next few decades, he says, we can expect drought and disease-resistant crops, artificial animals that provide food drugs and human stem cells, and radical enhancements of the human body - boosted intelligence, longevity increases and an ability to withstand radiation that will make deep-space travel possible. We can also expect teleportation, though not quite of the Star Trek type. Venter envisages a digital-biological converter on Mars. Code specifying a vaccine or personalised drug could be transmitted from earth and the converter would make them on the spot. If life was found on Mars, its code could be sent back and the creature could be replicated on earth.
Such newsy claims about the future are, of course, commonplace in popular-science books, and usually wrong. But Venter, more than most, has earned his right to prophecy. In 2010, for example, he announced the creation of what was called synthetic life. More accurately, it was a synthetic genome - based on an existing bacterium - implanted into a cell, but it was a first step to fully human-created life forms.
In addition, he has, simply by sampling sea water, discovered more species than David Attenborough could dream of. It was once thought there were about 10m species on earth. Venter and others have found that there are, in fact, trillions upon trillions of bacteria. The sheer abundance of life, clinging to the most unlikely ecological niches, makes it seem downright improbable that we are alone in the universe.
For Venter, there is nothing ultimately mysterious about all this. The doubts he expressed to me have been replaced by the absolute certainty that the code of DNA is the basis of life and the profligacy of the biosphere is simply the expression of the working out of that programme over the 4bn years of earth's existence. There is, in this book, much trashing of vitalism - the belief that there is some special life force - and much celebration of the fact that we are now exploring the boundary between living and inert matter.
There is, however, far too little serious thought given to what all this means. These developments mean that 'kitchen-sink' bioengineering is perfectly possible, raising the spectre of home-brew terrorists coming up with novel pathogens. Venter lists all the possible dangers and then says worthy words about ethics committees and government concerns, but he has no conceptual framework in which to offer his own analysis of these matters. The creation of synthetic life, meanwhile, raises more profound issues concerning the survival of the human - what would 'human' even mean when we can create synthetic, intelligent creatures? - but on these matters he is silent.
This book is not for the faint-hearted. It is, for much of the time, a demanding, technical read. But it is an important sign that genetics is back, all glammed up, to compete with neuroscience for the Oscars. Venter, the maverick, is a suitably attractive star, but wiser minds will question whether he is quite the man to take charge of the future.
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The idea of a ‘life force’ is passé. Spirituality and metaphysics have given way to information, codes and programs
Francis Crick, discoverer, with Jim Watson, , of the structure of DNA in 1953, enjoyed mocking those backward biologists who, even years later, were still writing romantically of a “life force”. Craig Venter’s new book hangs on nothing less than the meaning of life — not in a spiritual or metaphysical sense, but in terms of information, codes and programs. He opens with a story of a letter that Crick wrote on August 12, 1953, to the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (of waves, fields, groups and the ambivalent cat).
In 1939, at the invitation of Eamon de Valera, Schrödinger fled from his home in Vienna to Dublin, because of fear of Nazi opprobrium. His interest turned to biology. Venter treasures a first edition of What is Life?, the book that Schrödinger wrote in Dublin, in which he asked: “How can the events in space and time, which take place within the boundaries of a living organism, be accounted for by physics and chemistry?” Schrödinger had no doubt about starting that sentence with “How”: there was “no reason at all for doubting that they will be accounted for by those sciences”.
More than ten years before Crick and Watson’s discovery, Schrödinger speculated, prophetically, that chromosomes contain “some sort of code-script determining the entire pattern of the individual’s future development”, locked in an “aperiodic crystal”. It was this prediction that inspired Crick’s letter. He wrote: “your term ‘aperiodic crystal’ is going to be a very apt one”..
In 2000, Venter stood in the White House, side by side with Francis Collins, leader of the $3 billion, ten-year-old international public Human Genome Project, to announce the completion of the draft of the complete human genetic sequence. Venter was there because his private company, Celera Genomics, had done much the same thing in less than three years and at one-tenth the cost. Genomic research continues to shock us with evidence of the extent to which our minds as well as our bodies and brains — not to mention the variations that we call disease — are written in the language of our genes.
Venter is widely admired but sometimes ridiculed for flashing the full sequence of his own genome around the web, like some genetic streaker, for all to ogle at. Without the Rosetta Stone that genomic research promises, we cannot yet read the full life-story contained in human DNA. But there are hints. The tea-leaves of Venter’s own genes have been read: he has tell-tale sequences linked to cardiovascular disorders, wet earwax and Alzheimer’s disease. Venter had always thought of himself as hyperactive, and there in his DNA are signatures associated with anti-social behaviour and ADHD. You might think, then, that Life at the Speed of Light is the ultimately arrogant title of a biography. But the Life to which he refers is that apparently magical quality that Schrödinger and Crick believed could be reduced to atoms and molecules. And the Speed of Light refers to Venter’s vision that the code of life will soon be transmitted around the globe, indeed the universe, by radio or light signals.
Venter provides a riveting, clinically incisive account of hammering of nails into the coffin of vitalism, and of his own remarkable role in that endeavour. The striking conclusion is that life is not only simply the assembly of molecules by those aperiodic crystals of DNA, but is essentially the “booting-up” of genetic information. “All living cells” he writes “run on DNA software, which directs hundreds to thousands of protein robots”.
Venter grew up in California and seemed destined for a life devoted to sailing and surfing when he was drafted to Vietnam. Working in a field hospital he learned that “the difference between the animate and the inanimate can be subtle”. On his return to California he studied biochemistry, physiology and pharmacology. Nowadays, as an entrepreneurial free-thinking scientist, director of independent research institutes, he criticises the compartmentalisation of scientific disciplines and harks back to an earlier age of polymaths and visionaries. He cites Francis Bacon’s mission, in New Atlantis (1624), to “establish dominion over Nature and effect all things possible” by modifying birds and beasts, knowing in advance “what kinds of those creatures will arise”.
Venter claims a place in history for his creation, in 2010, of what he calls “the world’s first synthetic life”. He used chemicals in the lab to assemble the modified DNA of a bacterium and put it into a real bacterial cell to “boot-up” the artificial genetic program. It worked. The cell divided to produce a colony of artificial bacteria, whose properties were entirely determined by the code of the artificial DNA. He scoffs at the criticism that he is playing God: he doesn’t believe in God and sees his work as simply proving the central tenet of molecular biology — that genes make life. But Venter’s synthetic bacterium is the implementation of the kind of intelligent design that Francis Bacon envisaged and it has the potential for evil as well as good.
This book should be read for its prophecies, because they come from a man who is a doer, not a dreamer. We have to take seriously his prediction that future probes to Mars will transmit digital transcriptions of the DNA of Martian life-forms (assuming that they use DNA as their code); and that these signals will be decoded to replicate those organisms here on Earth. We must imagine Venter’s world in which DNA-based vaccines will be broadcast via the internet so that people trapped in their homes by global pandemics can dispense a syringe of vaccine from their home DNA machine; a world in which personalised drugs and antibiotics will be transmitted not just to people here but to astronauts in colonies anywhere in space. Venter has already made a prototype Digital Biological Converter to “print” living cells and he’s working on a Digitised Life Sending Unit — the transmitting device for literal teletransportation.
I had the pleasure of meeting Venter a few years ago. I expected to be regaled with egotistical accounts of winning the race for the human genome and creating artificial life. Instead, he wanted to talk about surfing and sailing. Love him or hate him, Venter is a force whose impetus will continue to drive synthetic biology and to challenge the boundaries of bioethics. Be Afraid: be Slightly Afraid.
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